It has been a year of death for our church. Death is, at the best of times, a difficult reality to wrestle with, but a global pandemic makes things even more complicated. Some have been unable to travel to funeral services of loved ones. Even when attendance has been possible, customary grieving practices have been arrested or made more difficult. As tough as it is to arrange a funeral under “ideal” circumstances, how much harder when you must balance the need for limited numbers, detailed registration, and social distancing. How much more trying it is when a congregation cannot sing together and must be cognisant of the dangers of something as simple as a comforting hug.
Our building has played host to more than its fair share of funerals during lockdown. Some have been for church members and others for non-members. Regardless, this year has given us much opportunity to reflect on the reality of death. David wrote Psalm 39 for precisely this purpose: “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah” (vv. 4–5). This psalm gives us opportunity to reflect on the brevity of life.
In the early days of lockdown, I wrote a devotional thought on this psalm, reflecting on it as a reminder of our mortality. As I re-read the psalm recently, one particular phrase struck me. David concludes his reflection: “Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!” (v. 13). He felt the Lord’s “angry gaze” (CSB) piercing him so that joy was evasive. He pleaded with the Lord to turn that angry gaze so that he could once again smile. But his concluding plea caught my attention: “before I depart and am no more!”
Death removes us from the realm of the living. In the Old Testament, the thought of the afterlife is far vaguer than it is in the New Testament. There is scant reference to resurrection. It can be argued that the Old Testament saints did not have a developed theology of personal eschatology: that is, they did not have a clear idea of what happened at death. For them, death meant that they were “no more.”
While there are scattered references to personal resurrection in the Old Testament, this doctrine is far more clearly taught in the New Testament. Jesus very clearly taught the physical resurrection of the dead (John 5:25; cf. 11:23–24). Paul taught the resurrection at great length in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 4:7–5:10. The doctrine of future resurrection, he said, is the hope of Christians in the face of death (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). While we tend to comfort one another during times of death with the intermediate state (“absent from the body, present with the Lord”), the New Testament focuses on resurrection. There is good reason for this: The doctrine of resurrection guarantees not only ongoing life for our believing loved ones, but also a glorious reunion with them: “and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The doctrine of future resurrection, secured by Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:17–18), is our promise that David’s “no more” is no reality for us. He anticipated being “no more” at death—full stop. As we reflect on the promise of the gospel in the face of death, we know that “no more” is no more because the Christian’s removal from the land of the living at death is temporary. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). For all intents and purposes, death renders us “no more,” but the resurrection at the last day will render “no more” no more.
As we reflect on the glorious truth of future resurrection, let’s use that truth to “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).